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Challenging the Status Quo: How Fundraising Counsel Could Have a Greater Impact

Friday, June 9, 2017   (0 Comments)

Jeffrey D. Byrne

By Ellen Bristol, President of Bristol Strategy Group

Recently, I overheard a remark by one of the more prestigious names in fundraising consulting. The conversation was about some common errors consultants often see our clients perpetrate. The major consultant remarked, “if that’s really the case, then we’re not doing right by our clients.”

I think there’s some truth in this remark. In spite of the work fundraising consultants provide (and training providers, books, webinars and other resources), our clients continue to lose costly hours of time and “rework,” high levels of uncertainty, sleepless nights, and conflict between board expectations and actual fundraising performance. We who serve this sector could do more to help it thrive. Here’s some data revealing where nonprofits lose ground:

•78% of nonprofits report no documented ideal-funder profiles including giving motivations, which inevitably produces many wasted hours of cultivation, and may attract one-time-only gifts. How come we aren’t showing our clients how to craft qualification benchmarks going beyond gift capacity?

•73% fail to establish quantifiable targets for donor retention. And as we know from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, donor retention has been embarrassingly low for years. Since people do what’s expect of them, we could show our clients how to set donor-retention targets, and then show them how to hold their development teams accountable for meeting those targets.

•When it comes to performance metrics, of those who use them at all, around 65% only measure income, a classic trailing indicator. Once you measure income, it’s too late to fix the process leading up to the income. Why aren’t we showing our clients how to institute ‘leading’ indicators, to provide early warnings?

•About half of all nonprofits respond to undesirable fundraising results by throwing more special events. The less said about that, the better.

•Only 47% claim to have a strategic plan, meaning 53% lack one. We wonder if those plans are well-designed or implemented. As consultants we could have a great beneficial impact here. After all, fail to plan, plan to etc. etc. 

Fellow fundraising consultants, we can do better for our clients, and they deserve it. Our wonderful nonprofit colleagues work their tails off, typically with sub-standard compensation, crappy furniture, out-of-date technology and below-par benefits. Let’s help them more than we do. We can go beyond the standard guidance on when and how to run campaigns or jazz up the board’s fundraising committee.  

Let’s act like management consultants. Because that’s what our sector really needs. Nonprofits are often pretty good, sometimes great, at running campaigns, sending out appeals, utilizing crowdfunding and promoting peer solicitation. But they don’t always have the right tools to manage their fundraising efforts for optimum productivity, continuous improvement and desirable outcomes.

As management consultants, we are in a position to encourage, train, coach and provide the tools and technology to reverse those disappointing data. We could drive home the need for documented prospect qualifying criteria including motivations as well as capacity. We could show them how to establish performance metrics that are relevant, easy to understand, readily able to be collated and analyzed. We could teach them the skills of root-cause analysis and the other techniques of continuous improvement. Our clients need support like this. We can and should provide it.

This July, I have the great honor of presenting these data, and the impact they could have on the nonprofit sector, at The Giving Institute’s Summer Symposium in Detroit. I’ll be teaming up with the CEO of DonorSearch, and the COO of our joint client, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a nonprofit which realized a thirty-percent increase in major gifts during their first year of implementing a fundraising strategy based on effective performance metrics, research, and innovative management practices. Hope to see you there.


Ellen Bristol is a performance-management geek and a nut for metrics. After selling huge computer installations for nearly twenty years, she launched Bristol Strategy Group in 1995, with the mission to bring the disciplines of business-process management to the sales force. Since 2011, the year she launched her long-term study on fundraising productivity, Ellen and her team have worked almost exclusively with nonprofits and occasional for-profit clients, usually those also selling to nonprofits. She is the developer of the methodology Fundraising the SMART Way™, which plugs those “leaks” found in the Leaky Bucket study.

Contact Ellen at or by phone at 305-935-6676.


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